We were water spirits in the summer months
Drawing air into our lungs
And diving in depths beneath rapids; under streams.
I do not know where water goes or why,
But i can feel it
Cool on my skin made brown by the sun.
At dusk we were still swimming.
Below the water, floating is like flying,
Falling, slowly in a silence
Where the only sound is the scraping
Of rocks in the stream
And the soft rush of water.
Land is a shock, then,
When we are carried on a surface
And no longer weightless, breathless
Spirits in the water.
The process was nearly always the same: get there, park the car, lock the doors, walk through the parking lot trying to avoid being hit by careless soccer moms in their minivans, get in, grab a basket, hurry to get out, and all the while realize that you are here with far too many other people all crowding in trying to find just the right can of beans or jar of peanut butter. This day of going through this process was just as unremarkable as the rest, and yet, there is an untold story somewhere in the aisles; an untapped mythos just waiting to be explained; and possibly something even redeeming to be found among the groceries that have started to become less expensive the closer they come to their inevitable expiration dates.
Armed with grocery list and disposable ballpoint pen, I began walking toward the store. The soccer mom’s minivan I deftly avoided had a bumper sticker that read in large blue letters: “All men are idiots and I married their king.” Since I was studying this sort of thing, the first thing that struck me (fortunately the minivan didn’t take that place) was the fact that the bumper sticker had no comma between its two clauses. The second thing to cross my mind was that I wondered what her husband thought of the bumper sticker. Perhaps she was telling the truth and the poor man couldn’t read, so he never knew what the bumper sticker said about him. If that was the case, I wondered what kind of cruel and sadistic woman she must be.
But I had not come there to speculate on the marital problems of another couple; I had come here with one goal in mind: groceries for the next few weeks. I glanced down at my list reviewing the items I’d written there earlier: coffee (always first on my grocery lists), milk, fruit, bread, cheese, peanut butter, fruit; I’d written that twice, so I crossed the second instance of that item off and continued reading down through my list. Coming to the bottom of my list, I knew I was prepared to enter the store regardless of what horrors lay within.
The place was busy. It was always busy, but today seemed to be even busier than normal. There were, of course, the usual crowd of people here, there just seemed to be much more of them than usual. Yet there we all were; all there with the same tools in our hands: small scraps of paper, sometimes folded down one edge to fit into pockets or purses, and a ballpoint pen. I went around one of the corners and saw down at the end of the aisle, a professor from the university. I’d only taken one of his classes, but it was still strange to see him there. Seeing people out of context is strange for anyone, but I was used to seeing this professor in suit jackets and slacks, and his old t-shirt and cloth shorts was a little too far out of his usual context than even I could have expected. Since I didn’t know him very well, I was alright with walking past with little more than a hello and a nod. Both of us were on our ways through the place with lists in hand. As I walked past, I wondered what was written on his list (professors do eat, right?), and what could be said about him based on that list.
I looked down at my list again: groceries on the left, price estimations on the right, so I could get a ballpark idea of what it would cost me to eat for the next few days. Going off the groceries, it might be easy to tell that I lived by myself– judging by how much of it was precooked and frozen, it would also be easy to guess how lousy of a cook I am; as for the price estimations, I like to think it’s because I like to be organized and planned, but it probably has a little more to do with my own obsessiveness than anything else.
I started thinking about this because a grocery list is an interesting piece if thought about in terms of a private, handwritten artifact. In other words, these lists, though mundane, are actually the ultimate example of writing for no one but the self: no one reads them except the author; no one would want to read them except the author. The whole thing could very well be written in an elaborate code, and it wouldn’t matter to anyone but the writer. In writing and composition studies, there is often a distinction drawn between writing for the self and writing for other people. The latter is talked about in terms of essays, papers, books, etc. — anything the author knows will have some kind of audience. The former is talked about in terms of diaries, poems written out and then thrown away, or first drafts the author knows will never be seen by anyone else. Put another way, writing studies almost always talks about writing for the self in mysterious, almost ethereal terms. Yet the majority of writing for the self, I’d be willing to bet, actually consists of people sitting down and writing things like grocery lists. No, these are not literature, but there’s a definite possibility that they say more about the human condition than many of the books students are made to read (and reread) in English literature classes.
Just as an example: behind me in the checkout line there was a woman who was probably in her mid to late thirties. I was in the process of checking out and bagging my groceries when she was
checking out, so I was within earshot and could hear the conversation she was having with the guy at checkout as he was scanning all of her groceries. At first, it was the usual conversation we all have in grocery stores; greeting, one asks how the other one’s day was, the other replies that it was good, etc. Again, where I was, I was within earshot of the conversation but not really paying too much attention until she said something that was outside the norm of that kind of transaction. When she heard the price of her groceries she said: “Well, that really adds up doesn’t it? And I had a short list today too.” The person working there hadn’t heard her, so he asked what she had said. “The price,” she replied, “it really adds up.” Since the computer screen that shows the price is faced toward the customer, and since I was within its line of sight, I looked up to see what she was talking about. She had less than twenty dollars in groceries.
As for this saying something about her, this means that the woman in the line behind me was one of two things: she was either very miserly, or she was very poor. My bags being full, I picked them up and began to walk away. As I was leaving; however, she was beginning to send certain items she had been trying to purchase back to their shelves: she wasn’t going to buy them. Here then is the story; here is the mythos: two types of people come to shop here, the frugal and the poor. In that churning miasma of people, it is impossible to tell which is which. Each person is united there by a common goal: the basic need to eat, and though the lists might be different, the needs; the wants; the humanity, in fact, is all the same.
*Author’s Note: This essay was written nearly a month ago, and then I graduated, my sister got married, my computer died, and I thought I lost it. Fortunately it wasn’t lost, and now that life is getting back to normal, it was time to post it.
I have passed my time here
Near to the heart of you
I’ve walked past your red-brick buildings
Your closed store fronts
And little open cafés.
On a cold day’s walk,
I have dipped my fingers in your fountain
Just to see how cold your waters can be.
On a cold day or a warm day,
I have gone to the river
To stand on the dock
And smoke cigarettes
Flicking the ashes into the stream
Or watching them being carried away on the wind
Like leaves in the fall.
I once came down here with a bottle of beer in my bag
To be alone for a while.
Alone, the way the river is alone;
The way this little town is alone;
The way each of the regulars at the small cafés and bars
Are all alone. I have found myself
In these places, but I am a regular of nowhere.
I prefer to sit outside
Watching from there inward.
Small town, I have looked into the contents of your heart
And seen a long way back in time.
You are old, and the heart of you is old.
Do you cry sometimes for the boarded up windows?
For the opera house that hasn’t heard a song in years
Save that of Thursday evening’s drunk
Stumbling and singing to the gathering night?
I think you cry sometimes
And other times give a smile as if to say:
“I have seen time come and go:
Birth and death and redemption.
I have been companion to lovers
Kissing by the river;
Confidante of thieves; and a knower
Of good men and evil—
Of good women and evil—
Of people and all their ways.
And I have watched quietly
As summer passed spring, and fall passed summer
And winter came last of all bringing frost.
I’ve seen much and known much,
And I know that one day this will all be dust”
In these moments, little town, I see you
As the place that held me,
Kept me around, brought about all my thoughts.
I have passed time here
Near to the heart of you,
Close to the river,
In the shadow of a red-brick building.
The reading of poems has made me want to pray as often as it has made me want to laugh, cry, sing, or do any of the things that a man can do when faced with something that speaks to the very core of his being. I do tend to think that a good poem gets at something deep inside a person in a way that nothing else really can: no painting, no music has the power to move a person in quite the same way as well-crafted words. And in that line of reasoning, there are no words better crafted than those that have been turned into poems. Yet language is simply a tool. For the most part, we spend more time using language to arrange to-do lists and talk to co-workers in our usual exchanges of “polite, meaningless words” than we do using language to create poetry, so what is so special about poetry? Or, to phrase the heart of the question a little better, what is it that makes poetry art?
Given the opportunity to talk about what makes something poetic, most would begin to talk about figurative language, metaphor, symbolism, etc. However, that is not all that poetry is. In fact, poets in the Imagist tradition tended to be somewhat sparse in their use of figures of speech, and possibly even sparser than them were the Symbolic poets like T.S. Eliot. The great poets living today and coming out of those traditions are, if anything, even less flowery and figurative than either the Imagists or the Symbolists, so it is not a stretch to entirely cross figurative language off our list of what makes a poem. Of course, without that pop culture definition of poetry, what can we actually say sets poetry apart from prose as a separate art form in its own right? For me, the answer to that lies in the author’s intention. The poet does not (or should not, as the case may be) sit down to write without a subject in mind. In some ways, then, the poet is very much like the essayist who also approaches pen and paper with an idea. Even if the poem, through the act of writing, ends up in a completely different place than what the author originally intended, the poem is still started with some intention; some message in mind that the poet wanted to get across to the reader. The reason a good poem creates such a strong response in the reader is that the reader recognizes that intention. Ultimately, what this does is create a connection between the author and the reader: an extremely powerful, extremely human connection.
As to the power of the connection, it has already been noted that poetry has the ability to move people; however, this is not the emotional moving that some of us feel watching pathos-laden movies: the kind of movement that poetry produces is far more powerful than that. Although there is an emotional aspect to poetry the connection a reader feels toward a poem has less to do with the heart and more to do with the mind. A good poem, one that is worth reading again and again, is going to have the largest impact on the mind of the reader. He or she will be invited to think about and interpret the poem, and that is how the poem creates a powerful connection with the reader. The human connection, on the other hand, is much more complex. It is a commonly believed, but not well investigated thought that art, on some level, speaks to something inside each of us. My argument here is that, as an art, poetry also speaks to us, but it has the power to speak in a way that no other art form can for the simple reason that the medium of poetry is language: possibly the only physical thing that sets us apart from other animals. The reason, then, that a good poem creates such a strong impression on us is that we recognize something entirely human in poetry that is in no other art from: the need for one person to communicate verbally with another person. When all else is stripped away: when there are no more symbols, images, figures of speech or any other poetic tools left, the base on which poetry is built is the need to communicate an idea from one person to another.
This is not just the base of poetry either. If our governments, schools, or various other institutions all crumbled and fell apart tomorrow, the one things that would still be left would be human language, and we would probably use that as the base on which we would rebuild civilization. Although we are not in that situation and hopefully never will be, it doesn’t take much imagination to put ourselves into any kind of post-apocalyptic scenario (film makers, after all, do that to us on a regular basis). In that situation, the only thing left to people would be the ability to speak to each other. It is on this base of needing to communicate that civilization is built, and it is on this same base that a good poem is built as well.
So what is it that makes poetry so powerful and so moving? The answer is twofold: first, there is the author’s intention; the idea he or she wants to communicate. This comes first because the idea and the need to communicate the idea both originate with the author. Second, the reader sees the communicative intentions of the author and responds to them. The power of poetry, then, lies in the fact that makes us do something we engage in every day without even thinking twice about it: conversation. Like conversation, poetry’s expected order is idea, communication, reception, response, and that is what drags us into the poem. It is as if the author decided to sit down to coffee with us and talk over his or her ideas. Thus, poetry uses a medium every human being can use, and it creates a conversation the way any human being can. Poetry isn’t magic; it isn’t flowery language; it definitely isn’t blind sentimentalism. Poetry’s power lies in the deceptively simple fact that it is based in one of the most human things we can do: two people sitting down and having a conversation.
I’ve known there to be shadows here.
Wherever light falls on one side,
The shadow is on the back.
Simple facts with implications:
Such is life.
Facing the dawn of a new day,
We don’t see the shadows that we are making.
I’ve heard that “we and the flowers
throw shadows on the earth”
And “what has no shadow has no strength to live.”
All the best lies are told by poets:
Everything has a shadow,
But I’ve only known people and dogs
To bark at the shadows they’ve made in their minds.
This spring is like no other
For the simple reason that now
Has never been before
Nor will ever be again.
Now: with raindrops on the leaves;
With grass starting to grow
Away from the frost and the ice
To new growth on everything.
Sometimes, in the long hours of my sleepless nights,
I think: this must be what salvation is like.
A return to the earth and a return to life.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, earth to earth,
But life renewed again to see the sun
In everything, on everyone.
Even my grey river, sweeping everything away,
carries a new light.